The no-hassle travel trifecta


Airport security lines could swell at SFO. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

With sequester-mandated budget cuts at the TSA (and the possibility of delays at understaffed security checkpoints) giving frequent travelers and the media the heebee-geebees, now is the time for BATs to invest in what I call the “no-hassle travel trifecta.”

This tripartite plan for avoiding airport bottlenecks involves signing up for three tools that will help you sail through airport lines with a smile: CLEAR, Global Entry and PreCheck.

1) CLEAR Card- $179 per year.

CLEAR, which operates at SFO as well as airports in Dallas/Ft Worth, Denver, New York-Westchester County and Orlando, provides guaranteed access to the front of the standard security lines (even ahead of those in airline elite level lines) for an annual fee of $179.

Members still have to remove shoes, laptops, etc. There are CLEAR lanes at all entrances at all terminals, including international, at SFO.  CLEAR’s biggest selling point is that it guarantees access to the front of the line—and this certainty about the airport experience is very valuable to time-pressed frequent travelers. Over the last few months, lines have been so short at SFO that I’ve not had to use my CLEAR card… but the few times it saved me from 20-30 minute waits have made it worth the $179 fee.

While CLEAR won’t reveal how many subscribers it has, this week it said that cardholders have sped through airport security one million times over the last two years. (Click here for a free two-month trial of CLEAR.)

2) Global Entry - $100 for five years

Directional signs to Global Entry kiosks at SFO

Directional signs to Global Entry kiosks at SFO

Last month, I arrived at SFO from Puerto Vallarta at about the same time that two full jumbos jets from Asia arrived. Waits at immigration queues were 30-45 minutes—the entire arrivals hall was packed. With Global Entry, I was able to sneak off to a special queue, and along with a handful of other savvy travelers, use one of four Global Entry kiosks… and ended up getting to the airport curb in less than five minutes. The friends I was traveling with were not amused!

To get a Global Entry card, you must fill out an online application, and then appear at the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) office at SFO for a personal interview, and allow agents to take a photo and few biometric measures. The $100 fee is good for five years. Last year, United Airlines began reimbursing the fee for “premier priority” Mileage Plus members. The American Express Platinum card does the same. As a result of these incentives, I have learned from BAT readers that the current wait time for an interview at the CBP office is 2-4 months! And if sequester cuts kick in, waits could be even longer.

According to CBP, more than 1.4 million trusted travelers now have Global Entry benefits. SFO is one of 34 airports in the United Sates and 10 pre-clearance locations in Canada and Ireland with Global Entry kiosks. In Australia, Global Entry cardholders can now use the country’s SmartGate kiosks for expedited immigration processing. Sign up here: www.globalentry.gov

3) PreCheck (Free for Global Entry cardholders, elite flyers) 

Precheck logo TMPreCheck offers certain high mileage frequent flyers access to special, faster lanes at airport security that do not require them to remove their shoes, belts or coats, or take their laptops out of their bags for screening. At SFO, there are only two PreCheck lanes: One at United’s premium or elite level member checkpoint (“F3”) in Terminal 3; the other at the joint American/Virgin America checkpoint at Terminal 2. Both PreCheck lanes are located on the far left side of the checkpoints. There are no PreCheck lanes at the international terminal checkpoints because PreCheck is for domestic passengers only.

In order to be able to use PreCheck lanes at SFO, you must be a US citizen, opt in to an invitation from United or American or request an invitation from United here (requires Mileage Plus sign in).  American Airlines AAdvantage members can opt in here.

In addition all Global Entry, Nexus and other card-carrying trusted travelers that hold special clearance from US Customs and Border Protection (see above) are eligible for PreCheck. For the process to work, be sure to enter your Global Entry number on your airline frequent flier program profile.

The most important thing to know about PreCheck is that selection is random—which means that even of you have obtained PreCheck status, you are NOT guaranteed access to the PreCheck lane. You will only know that you are selected for the PreCheck lane when you arrive at airport security and allow the agent to scan your boarding pass or smart phone. Three beeps from the scanner means that you can proceed to the PreCheck lane. One beep means that you must enter the (likely longer) non-PreCheck line for standard screening. For security reasons, the TSA will not reveal its selection criteria.

Do YOU have the no-hassle travel trifecta yet? Please leave your comments below. 


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  1. Clear & PreCheck sound good - but since I only seem to fly every year, or every other year, they don’t make sense (except that I do have multi-miles at United).
    My problem has always been that I’m disabled - have heart and lung disease - which is invisible to most people. I’ve been treated well at airports-carriers & have been incredibly insulted and physically mistreated as well. Usually I end up near the gate where I have to lie down on the floor for rest, and even then access to the seats first, and help with my bag is a JOKE. Any recommendations for me??

  2. Even if you don’t get selected for PreCheck, you wind up in a slightly shorter line anyway. Out of the 5 times I tried, was only accepted once (the first time, in Vegas of all places). If I ever ramp up flying again (DL Plat for a few years, down to Gold this year, probably even less next year), I’d probably go for Global Entry.

  3. Hi Hugo: If you don’t have elite status with an airline, you can get approved for PreCheck by joining Global Entry and paying, the $100 fee. — chris

  4. Thanks, LM. My friends and I were headed in separate directions, so I just jumped in a cab and headed home- I arrived at home when they were just getting into their cab! — chris

  5. Thanks, Shane, you are correct that PreCheck is a separate line and separate screening process. CLEAR gets you to the head of the standard line only- but the screening is the same.

  6. Actually, at SFO Terminal and all other Pre-Checks I’ve visited, you do NOT go through the regular screening process at the head of the line or anywhere else: you enter a separate line. Your stuff goes through a Pre-Check conveyor (and you do not need to remove computer, toiletries, etc.) and you go through a separate Pre-Check scanner without removing your shoes, etc.

  7. Laurence M says:

    Chris did you have to wait for your non-GE friends after using GE when you came back from Puerto Vallarta? It’s great not having to be in line, but if your friends don’t have it then you just end up waiting for them and you don’t get the time saving :(

    Some people think that PreCheck obviates the need for Clear but, as someone who is based here in SFO I use Clear over PreCheck each and every time. Why would I bother with the hassle of the ‘frequent fliers’ security checkpoint? There’s *always* a super long line there, and I might not get selected for PreCheck anyway. Also, Clear is closer to the airtrain so it just seems like an easier option. With Clear security never takes more than a few minutes, and since I’m always prepared to take out all my liquids, laptop etc, I don’t mind…

  8. The CLEAR program is elitist and degrading. That an American has to now pay to be treated normally is abhorrent, if you still have your head on straight enough to get it!

  9. Hugo Traeger says:

    I have been using Clear for a while now and it’s great. I live halfway between SFO & SJC so it makes SFO my obvious choice for departing flights. Just wish it was at SJC and more airports. It was sweet returning from a conference in Orlando last week. Horrible security lines there with lots of infrequent flyers. And Clear really saved me in Denver a few weeks ago when I was running late.
    But I don’t fly any one airline enough to have status. I’m on a combination of mostly Southwest, Virgin America, United and Delta. Not much overseas travel and that is personal. So is there a way that I can get Pre-Check? My friends that have it are raving about it.

  10. Helena Smith says:

    Global Entry has saved me hours at SFO and Dulles. I’m waiting Clear to expand to other airports before I enroll. According to the blog-o-sphere, PreCheck may not save you much time because it only kicks in as you go through the check-point; it doesn’t get you to the head of the line.

    When will Clear users also be eligible for PreCheck? That seems to be a logical combination.

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